Me, Myself & iPhone

Is your smartphone usage stifling your creativity?

In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ll admit right here that I’m a reluctant import into the world of Web 2.0 – not exactly a Luddite, but no early adopter either, not since Gmail first launched and you needed to be invited by an existing user to join.

I’m not on Facebook, I’m terrible at texting, the predominant activity I perform with my phone is talking on it, and I don’t own a smartphone (or rather, don’t own the corresponding data plan required to boost my phone’s intelligence quotient) because

a)  I don’t want to pay for it, and

b)  I couldn’t conceivably fit any more computing time into my day

I already spend all day online at work, and then come home and run my laptop until it’s time for bed.  The last thing I need is another computer in my pocket, even though there are indeed times having one would be handy, like when I’m travelling and don’t know my way around.  Then again, I also still appreciate the experience of finding a place by physically looking for it or talking to people to get directions, especially when visiting new places.

Regardless of my personal preferences, though, the world has definitely changed.  My uncle, who is fast approaching his seventh decade of life, once remarked that it used to be that people never left home without a bottle of water in their hand.  Now, the phone is the must-have accessory – dehydration be damned.

Although that same uncle, being a proper Englishman, is far more likely to quench his thirst with wine rather than water, to say nothing for the fact that his ancient desktop computer still connects to the internet via dialup.  So he’s perhaps not the best choice of social commentator on either count, no offense to my uncle, of course.

Why, when and where?

Have you ever contemplated why you use your phone so much?  Or more to the point, why do you choose to use it when you do?  Why on public transit, while in line at the grocery story, while sitting on a park bench, while walking down the street, while waiting for a table at a restaurant, while waiting for anything?  Why during all the times that I’m most loath to do anything at all?

As a writer, to come up with ideas, I require regular bouts of silence, and I’m certain those who practice other forms of the art have a similar need.  Not just physical silence – although believe me, I’m all for that too – but informational silence as well.  I need to just stop taking in data for a while to mull over what I’ve already subsumed from my 14+ hours a day of existing computing time.

I need to stare blankly at my surroundings – at other people using their phones, and other such un-stimulating sights – and just sit with myself for a bit while things percolate.

Informational silence gives way to mental silence, which is so essential to the creative process.  In an article entitled “Finding Silence”, fantasy author Holly Lisle writes that,

[T]he silence we as writers must have to be productive, is silence inside ourselves. That silence travels anywhere. We carry it with us as if it were a private retreat in the mountains….  [T]his silence is hard to find and hard to hold. It is as elusive as a rainbow, as easily shattered as sugar glass, as rare as a white stag, as skittish as a wild colt….  The search for your characters’ voices and your story’s action and the truth of the world that you are building begins in the silence of your mind.

She goes on to advocate meditation as a means of capturing this silence.  For me, unplugging for a little while and forcing my brain to create its own entertainment is practically a meditation in itself.  According to Irish TV writer Graham Linehan (whom I quoted in my previous post from his recent CBC Radio interview, which runs from 42:45 to 48:56),

If you stop your brain from amusing itself, it will desperately try and do anything to have a good time, so boredom is kind of a useful tool [for creativity].

Thus do these utterly boring periods of enforced idleness that arise throughout a normal day become opportunities to write while not writing: to think about my novel-in-progress – about upcoming scenes, and scenes already written that can improved, or whether my characters are remaining true to their character traits – or about future novels I’d like to write, or future blog posts.

The possibilities, as they say, are endless.

Your brain on technology

Beyond the chance to put in more story time, another good reason to sit with yourself every now and then is to ensure you don’t altogether lose the ability to do so.  In that same CBC Radio interview, Graham Linehan went on to discuss the possibility that people’s technology use might be having large-scale implications upon our capacity for creative thought.  He said,

There was a really great quote: Someone said that because of the internet, the human race may be losing its ability to create things like the internet.  I do wonder sometimes whether that’s true.  I wonder whether the deep commitment and immersion that you used to be able to have in things – I wonder whether that’s even possible anymore.  And I think you do need deep immersion to create things like the internet, or a novel, or a film, or whatever it happens to be.

This isn’t the first I’ve heard of this notion.  Startup entrepreneur and Google Ventures Partner Joe Kraus has spoken and written on this issue.  Specifically, he claims that,

We are creating and encouraging a culture of distraction where we are increasingly disconnected from the people and events around us, and increasingly unable to engage in long-form thinking.  People now feel anxious when their brains are unstimulated.  We are losing some very important things by doing this. We threaten the key ingredients behind creativity and insight by filling up all our ‘gap’ time with stimulation.

This is a relatively new area of brain research that has also been written about by technology and culture writer Nicholas Carr (The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains) and California State University psychology professor Dr. Larry Rosen (Rewired: Understanding the iGeneration and How They Learn and iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession With Technology and Overcoming It’s Hold On Us).

Finding a fine balance

The point of the post is not to be anti-internet or anti-social media, anti-smartphone, anti- getting caught up on online tasks when you’ve got an idle moment, or anti- amusing yourself when you’re bored.  Indeed, the internet with its vast amount of information, photos, videos, resources, and people can be exceedingly inspirational for writers.  It certainly is for me.

But so too is just turning it all off sometimes and forcing my brain to make its own fun.  If you’ve never tried it, I highly recommend it.  You never know what sort of novel – pun partially intended – entertainment your mind might dream up for you.

(A/N: This post is in honour of the iPhone 5 and the fervour its recent release has caused world-wide.)

(Image source)


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11 thoughts on “Me, Myself & iPhone

  1. I completely agree. Sometimes I find the only time I give myself to just stop and think is while walking or cycling to work. But what really gets me is that the time I spend on my phone/computer/Wordpress seems to have come out of my regular reading time. Somehow it seems easier to flick through a blog or catch up on the news than to pick up a book. There must be a way to strike a happy balance, but right now life feels rather overwhelmingly full.


    • Hi littletash, thanks for the comment. I have the same problem with my reading time. It takes me forever to get through a book these days, largely because I pick up whatever one I’m “reading” at the moment so infrequently. Yet, I’m on the computer all the time. I definitely feel that my attention span has diminished since the advent of Web 2.0, even without a proper smartphone, although admittedly, part of that might just have to do with growing up and the demands of a full-time job. Either way, it’s not a quality I appreciate in myself. Luckily, like you, I also cycle to and from work, which gives me a good 20+ minutes each way to let my mind wander. And I’ll continue to hold out against getting a smartphone as long as possible.


  2. I completely agree with Joe Kraus – if I’m relaxed and not influenced by all the technology going on around me I’m far more creative.

    Having said that, I’ve only recently given in and bought an android iPhone. I did this because I was going on my road trip and needed access to the internet. I love it and never thought I would. If I’m waiting for someone at a coffee shop or restaurant I can go through my emails (which takes me AGES – so this ten minutes or so, instead of sitting there looking at the menu, is quite satisfying!) I would never have spent this time writing or being creative anyway, so it’s actually saving me time when I get home and turn on the computer to write. I’m with you on the texting front – I hate and am very bad at it, so I always call people instead.

    I walk to work, so I get lots of time to think about my day, my stories and anything else that wants to pop in there 😀


    • I’m glad you’re loving your iPhone, Dianne. 🙂 They are indeed useful tools, and in keeping with your recent post about advances in science, it’s amazing to think that where computers were once giant behemoths that occupied entire floors of buildings, now they can fit neatly in your pocket. I can totally see myself getting a proper smartphone some day if my current situation of literally being in front of the computer the majority of my waking hours ever changes. And in your case, your phone may well be enhancing your creativity if it’s allowing you more writing time at home without emails to worry about.

      I really am just an incorrigible daydreamer whose always keen for an opportunity to tell myself a story or speculate about the people around me. 🙂


  3. I feel life was better when wired. The wireless life gave us endless opportunities to think, to imagine and all that went dormant with the technological advancement. I miss those priceless moments that were genuinely ours.


    • Hi largerthanlife, thanks for the comment. You make a good point about life being different before wireless. I can remember those days: people’s time online vs. offline was much more clear-cut when we were still tethered to our computers, as was it probably much easier to tell if you’d been online too long (i.e. you haven’t gotten up from your desk chair in a while). And given how frustratingly unreliable dial-up often was, most people were probably much more likely to get up and do something else much sooner.


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